Ukraine is holding a presidential vote this weekend, but it has become downright dangerous for many in the east to be associated with the vote, since the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence last week.
Ukrainian police and election officials accuse pro-Russia gunmen there of seizing election commission offices and threatening members in an effort to derail the presidential vote.
The struggling interim government in Kiev has been counting on the presidential election to install a leader who would be seen as a legitimate successor to Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February after months of street protests. But the long-anticipated election may not be considered legitimate by Russia or Ukrainians themselves if people in a large part of the country are unable or unwilling to cast their ballots.
Nearly 15 percent of Ukraine’s population lives on territory now largely controlled by pro-Russia militias.
“No one is going to vote because no one wants to get a bullet in their forehead,” said 68-year-old Donetsk resident Dmytro Zarubo. “We’ve been threatened with this.”
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents. He has called Ukraine’s presidential election “a step in the right direction” but if Russia is counseling the separatists to allow the vote to go forward, there’s no evidence of that on the ground. Other senior Russian officials have signaled the vote would be considered illegitimate because Ukrainian troops are still fighting some eastern separatists.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent observers to monitor Ukraine’s presidential election, says there has been no significant campaigning in the Donetsk or Luhansk regions or in the neighboring Kharkiv region, where separatist sentiments are also strong.
Ukraine election officials say armed men have occupied election commission offices in the east.
“Members of the district commissions have been calling the police saying they have to resign because they have received death threats,” said Andriy Mahera, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Election Commission.
When asked about the threats, Denis Pushilin, a leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, made it clear that his forces would not let Sunday’s vote take place.
“The May 25 election is an election for the president of a neighboring state,” Pushilin told the Associated Press. “People are still working to hold the election but we are putting an end to this with civilized means.”